You and your toddler know this Revolutionary War-era nursery rhyme, but neither of you have any idea why modern Americans still sing it. It doesn’t paint a flattering portrait of our founding citizens. It also doesn’t have anything to do with Kraft Mac & Cheese. Why is this still in the kid canon?
Here’s the quick answer to the burning question: The “Yankee Doodle” song was basically one of American history’s first diss tracks. The whole “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni” line has nothing to do with pasta. It’s actually a reference to the height of late 18th century foppish fashion: The macaroni wig. (This would be the 1770s equivalent of the man bun.) What the Brits were saying is that the Yankees were so stupid and classless they could fake a sophisticated European sensibility just by sticking bird parts in their coonskin caps. Sick burn, Brits.
“Yankee” was a British term for the American colonists before it was what Waffle House customers yelled at New Yorkers. But, it’s also likely a botched pronunciation of “Janke,” a common Dutch colonial name. While “Doodle” comes from the German word Dödel, which translates to “fool” or “simpleton.” So, clearly they didn’t appreciate our help. It was British army surgeon Dr. Richard Schuckburgh (with a name like Schuckburgh, it has to be painful!) who put that phrase in a lyric around 1755, openly mocking the colonials who served alongside the British during the French and Indian War.
The term “Yankee Doodle Dandy” is also meant to imply that they lacked the masculine virility of their British counterparts. (Redcoats weren’t down with gender fluidity.)
In a move your kid could learn from, the Americans decided to embrace the term. And, according to legend, the American army greeted General Cornwallis’ surrender with a rousing rendition of the song. If Alanis Morissette sang “It’s like 10,000 American soldiers / Singing ‘Yankee Doodle’ at Yorktown,” it would would have been a more accurate lyric for “Ironic.”
Additional verses were added later on to mock the British (and literally sing the praises of George Washington). But, credit for flipping it to a pro-American phrase is most commonly given to Edward Bangs, a Harvard sophomore who was also a Minuteman in 1776. (Proving Harvard nerds have always been funny.) The metaphor you can use with your too-cool-for-elementary-schooler is, the Revolutionary War was a rap battle, and basically British would have won were it not for that 1776 remix.